“My love for Australia and Greece led me to create the Australian Archaeological Institute at Athens”
Intelligent, distinguished, passionate and a trail blazer are some of the terms that describe Professor Alexander Cambitoglou. Admired by peers, revered by students, he was the first person of Greek background to become a university professor in Australia in 1963 and has spent more than five decades tirelessly championing Australian research in Greece as well as his lifelong passions of classical archaeology and attic vase painting. He is also a world authority on the subject of red-figure vase painting of the Greek colonies of southern Italy.
In 1980 he had the insight to create the Australian Archaeological Institute at Athens (AAIA) promoting and enabling Australian research in Greece and leaving a legacy for future Australian scholars, and at 96 years old he still works at his office at the University of Sydney on a daily basis.
Born in Thessaloniki in 1922 to parents hailing from Veria and Thessaloniki he was a bright and studious child in what was then an interesting, cosmopolitan centre, receiving private tuition in Ancient Greek, Latin, French, German, English and piano in addition to his formal high school education. He proceeded to obtain a Bachelor of Arts at the University of Thessaloniki as well as Doctorates at the Universities of London and Oxford, eventually becoming a Classical Archaeologist.
GCT had the honour of meeting with Professor Cambitoglou to talk about archaeology, accolades and his tremendous excavation work.
What made you want to become a Classical Archaeologist?
I come from a family in which classics were traditional. During the last 2 years of high school, I was influenced by a private tutor and, independently, I became sensitive to attic vase painting. I became an archaeologist in the written sense of the word and later graduated.
Tell us about leading excavations in Zagora, Andros since 1967 and then Torone, Halkidiki from 1975?
Zagora and Torone are two very different sites. Andros dates from the Iron Age, meaning the early part of the first millennium BC. Our excavations there threw some light on a period in which little was known.
Torone has a very long and complex history which takes us from antiquity to the Byzantine and post-Byzantine period. A monograph on the Byzantine and Post-Byzantine periods of Torone’s history and archaeology is about to be published.
What do you consider your most significant find at these sites?
This is a rather difficult question to answer. At Zagora, our excavations revealed the settlement of the early Iron Age. At Torone it was the discovery of part of the Temple which is mentioned by Thucydides that is not visible above ground level.
The accolades are many. In addition to creating the AAIA, you were awarded an Order of Australia in 1987 for your contributions to archaeology and international cultural relations in Australia, and an Order of the Golden Phoenix by the Greek government in 1998. You were also awarded the Centenary Medal by Australia in 2001 for your services to Australian society and mankind through your work as a Classical Archaeologist.
I think the work I did in the Department of Archaeology at the University of Sydney and curating the Antiquities Collection at the Nicholson Museum since 1962, and the creation of the AAIA as well as the excavations of Zagora and Torone deserve the Australian Order that I received from the Australian Government and the Order of the Golden Phoenix from the Greek Government. What however gave me the greatest pleasure was a compliment I received recently from the University of Sydney, which included me in its “Founders’ Circle.”
What has been the biggest accomplishment of your career?
The most important is the creation of the Australian Archaeological Institute at Athens, through which Australia joined another 18 foreign schools or institutes in the Greek capital.
Why was it important for you to create the Australian Archaeological Institute at Athens?
I was invited to this country in 1962 to teach Classical Archaeology. It seemed strange to me that Australia, which is culturally an important Western country, did not have a cultural representation in Athens to do what other great Western countries like the USA, the French school and the German Institute do. My love for Australia and Greece led me to create the Australian Archaeological Institute at Athens.
Tell us about your research into Greek pottery?
The research I did on vase painting of the Greek colonies of southern Italy and the publication of my research on the subject represented on Greek southern Italian vases gave me great intellectual pleasure.
What has been your greatest lesson to students?
Dealing with the main archaeological sites in Greece and southern Italy. What comes to mind is the Acropolis of Athens, and sites like Olympia, Delphi and Knossos in Crete.
What has influenced you in your work?
I was a post graduate student for 6 years in Great Britain, working under the tutorship of great classicists in the country such as the late T.B.L Webster, the late Martin Robertson and, above all, the late Sir John Beazley at Oxford.
What inspires you?
My acquaintance with the great Australian scholar, the late Professor Arthur D. Trendall, who I first met as a student at Oxford and later on became his co-author of a big and important book on the Greek vases of Apulia in South Italy.